Poem: Welcome, Old Friend

It is strange how something that has been away for nearly a year 
Feels like it was with me just yesterday.
I pick up where I left off, like with a dear old friend.

It is strange how I can suddenly be so comfortable with the hunger 
That I usually cannot tolerate for more than a few minutes.
The emptiness that I loathe is now welcome, wanted, craved.

It is strange that I even wonder at this. Well known are
The blessings of this month, which flow through all who take part.
I give up little with my fast. I am given so much in return.

It is strange how the time passes. Thirty days now seem so long
But I know the end will soon be here and my beloved companion,
Not long arrived, will have to move on.

So it is strange and yet not so strange at all
That I already find myself heavy-hearted,
Grieving the farewell moment though it has only just begun.

The story behind the poem

I wrote this poem in 2010 when I was emerging from a challenging period in my life. Shamelessly leaning on a cliché here, it would be fair to say that spiritually speaking, I had been lost in a desert. Then Ramadan came along like an oasis. The relief, tranquillity, and replenishment it gave me immediately had me thinking about how I didn’t want it to end, when it had barely gotten underway.

Ramadan, Reading, and the Pen

Opening of Surah al-‘Alaq – translates as ‘Read! In the name of…’ (photo credit: islaam.net)

Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, has arrived. As well as being the month when Muslims around the world fast from the break of dawn to the setting of the sun each day, it is the month in which the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

The revelation began when the angel Gabriel, known in Islam as Jibreel, appeared before the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon them both, while he was meditating on Mount Hira and spoke the following words:           

Read! In the name of your Lord who created.

He created man from a clinging form.

Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One

Who taught by the pen;

Who taught man what he did not know.

Surah al-‘Alaq, verses 1-5 (from Qur’an translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World Classics)

Like the first revelation, Ramadan for me begins with reading and the pen. For the past fourteen years, on a seasonal basis, I have been writing content for a guide to Ramadan produced by a small local outfit called Ramadhan Publications. (The ‘h’ in there is not a typo – when it comes to English renderings of Arabic words, variations in spellings are commonplace.)

A couple of months before the holy one arrives, the director of Ramadan Publications will get in touch with a request for the new year’s content. The email will contain an attachment of the previous year’s pages, and so my Ramadan will begin several weeks in advance with reading and the pen.

My brief is to write an introduction for the book and website, and to give readers an overview of what Ramadan entails. I will read what was written the year before, and then pick up my pen to get writing. With Ramadan regulations and rituals having been in operation for over 1,400 years, however, there isn’t exactly anything new to say about the month. So the challenge is all about finding fresh ways to present the material so that it is engaging and inspiring as well as informative.

Usually, I do this by finding an angle that ties in with what is happening around us, what might be playing on our collective minds. This year, with the ongoing concerns about Covid-19, the emergence of a new conflict on top of all the struggles already going on internationally, and the worries about the sharp rise in the cost of living here at home, the power of faith and prayer to help overcome feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness suggested itself as a theme.

Although the scope of the assignment is somewhat limited by availability of space in the book and the specifics of the subject matter, there is some room for creativity. One year, on the publication’s tenth anniversary, I jettisoned the usual information pages altogether and went all-out literary with a set of poems instead. I often pick up the pen to jot down spiritual musings outside the requirements of this project, a lot of which is expressed in poetic form, so bringing some of that into the mix was a particular joy.

For me, reading, writing, and Ramadan definitely go hand-in-hand. So in that spirit, God Willing, I will be sharing some of my Ramadan musings with you in the coming weeks. This will include both the poems that I wrote for the Ramadan guide and some original material from my notebooks.

I hope you enjoy my humble offerings and I hope, whatever your faith background, that you have a nurturing, enriching, and uplifting month.

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

Creating through Curating

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I have had fun recently over on the Koyal Writers’ website putting together a ‘found poem’ using the answers from our ‘7 Questions with the Koyals’ blog series. The blog series yielded such a rich body of references, imagery, and insight into our writers that I wanted to somehow capture some of that in one place to reflect the essence of us as a group.

The ‘found poem’ format, which creates new material by curating from existing material, leant itself well to the task. The poem, entitled ‘We Are…’, can be found here. Enjoy!

(With special thanks to fellow Koyal Sidra Ansari for her editorial enhancements!)

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

In The Spotlight

It’s my turn in the spotlight over at the Koyal Writers’ website this week where we have been doing a series of blogs to introduce each of our members.

As there are seven members in the group, we came up with the idea of posing the same seven questions to each of us. The questions cover topics from how we see ourselves as writers to which books have stayed with us over time to where we would go if we could fly off to anywhere in the world right now.  And true to form, some of the questions have seven as a theme. 

‘Name seven books that are a permanent fixture on your shelf’ – one of the Seven Questions with the Koyals

You can read my interview here, but while you’re on the Koyal blog I recommend that you also check out the interviews with Sarah M Jasat and Sidra Ansari. Faced with the same seven questions it is quite interesting to see the variety in our answers – they make the blogs illuminating as well as enjoyable to read. I can’t wait for the rest of the Koyals to have their turn!

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

Jump-Back-In January

Yes, I've been away.
Now what on earth can I say
To account for all the missing time?

I don't really know
But I will give it a go,
And try to do the whole thing in rhyme.

I'm a mother, that's true,
But my son's nearly twenty-two,
So it's not like he needs me day and night.

And my parents call on me, yes,
But that isn't exactly a stress,
So blaming them also wouldn't be right.

I went back to work
But my boss is far from a jerk,
So I certainly can't pin my absence on him.

And I'm lazy as ****,
My activity levels suck,
So I can't pretend that I've been at the gym.

The football can get busy –
The fixture list sometimes makes me dizzy – 
But it's not like I go every week.

And yes I cook and I clean,
But I'm no domestic queen,
So that can't be the explanation I seek.

What is going on, then?
What is it that has kept me away when
Every excuse so far has been shot down?

What happened to 'I AM a writer'?
'Putting pen to paper makes my life brighter'?
Did those beliefs just pack up and leave town?

No, that isn't quite it,
But I'm a little embarrassed to admit
Just what has been keeping me away.

You see my novel wasn't picked,
The agents' boxes were left unticked,
So I ended up going astray.

I've been feeling rather lost
And questioning writing's cost
To the body, the mind, and the soul,

When you give so much of self,
And sacrifice time and wealth,
Yet in the end fail to meet your goal

Oh, yes I know you must keep going,
And keep the sentences flowing,
While all the time wearing a smile,

But the truth is I'm dejected
Because my manuscript was rejected
(And, in most cases, not even picked off the pile).

And yes, I know it is a sin
To play the self-pity violin – 
To mope is in such bad taste.

But I doubt that I'm the first
To cry when the bubble burst
So please don't judge me in haste.

Still, this much I know:
It means too much to let it go.
I will inevitably get back in the game.

I will get the laptop humming
And keep the paragraphs coming
And hope soon there's a book to my name.

And loser-talk it may be,
But I will remember what is key
As I prepare myself to jump back in:

Replenishing the well
Matters more than words that sell,
So published or not, I still win.

On that note I end my story
Of no hope and even less glory,
And as promised I told it all in verse.

Compared to all the rest
It cannot be called the best
But it could've been a whole lot worse.

The End. 
(Or, The New Beginning…?)

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

Poem: Abandoned Self-Portrait no.156

Kind brown eyes 
           Massive thighs
Shapely lips 
           Excessively-wide hips

Right. Let’s start again…

Flowing, glossy dark brown hair
          Lumpy, saggy bits everywhere
A smile that radiates love and care
          Boobs a ridicul—
Okay, enough, let’s not go there.

Why can’t I write one nice verse,
One line, one word about myself
Without you butting in?
          <snigger>
          That depends on the word.
How about ‘beautiful’?
Surely it doesn’t only belong 
To the visually pleasing?
What about the gorgeous-withins?
          But what you are inside
          Isn’t the subject of this portrait,
          And supporting your claim to beauty 
          Would mean helping you to tell a… 
          Porky pie 
          <snigger>

<Sigh>

So what words am I allowed?
          Ugly. Stupid. Lazy. Greedy.
          Loser. Failure. Burden.
          Disgusting. Slobby. Pig.
          We can go on…
Please don’t.
These words you speak
Like they’re so original, so clever,
I’ve been hearing them forever.
They have echoed in my ears
For as long as I can remember.
          Whale
Words flung at me,
Explicit, implied,
From mouths all around me
And countless pair of eyes.
          Elephant
Children, adults, in-betweens.
Loved ones, strangers, in-betweens.
Professionals with a duty of care.
          Suet Dumpling

Okay. Fine. I give up. 
I will choke down the ‘beautiful’
That dared creep onto my tongue.
I can pretend for a second,
Try to use the artist’s licence,
But they are always there—
The voices, the critics—
Poised to remind me
That I
          Fatty 
Am not entitled to the B word,
And that I
          Fatty 
Am in a battle I cannot win.

          Oh, but all is not lost.
          You could be beautiful, you know.
I could?
          Oh yes.
          So very beautiful.
          If you were thin.

The story behind the poem

I have struggled with my weight my entire life, so it is a subject that often shows up in my writing. This poem began as an attempt at a positive self-portrait many years ago but as soon as I drafted it, the internalised fat-hating voice piped up and started telling me what a joke it was to write nice things about myself. Confidence undermined, I ended up hacking away at the poem until it was in complete tatters. Rather than abandoning the poem altogether, however, I decided instead to have a go at capturing just how the portrait came to be shattered. I’m not sure if I’ve done it as well as I would have liked to, but when the essence of this poem is a cry against the tyranny of perfection, it seems only right to share it as it is, imperfections and all.

Flying High with Koyal Writers

It has been a fabulous couple of months for Koyal Writers, the virtual writing group of which I am a member. After delivering an event for South Asian Heritage Month in August, we went on to be featured in Writing Magazine in September. It is quite fitting that our group is named after a bird, because it really does feel like we have taken flight!

I have mentioned the Koyal Writers elsewhere but not really said very much about the group, so that would be a good place to start today. My fellow members (or, as I like to refer to them, my sisters-in-writing) are Anita Goveas, Mala Schneider, Nabeela Ahmed, Sarah M Jasat, Sidra Ansari, and Sujana Crawford. We met in 2018 on the Becoming a Writer course from The Asian Writer and stayed in touch via WhatsApp once the course came to an end. Individually, we write on a wide range of subjects in a variety of forms, including novels, short stories, flash fiction, plays, poetry, and non-fiction. Since January 2020, we have been working more collectively through a virtual journal that we call The Travelling Notebook, which we are aiming to develop into an anthology. We are on Twitter (@thekoyalwriters) and are working on setting up a website and developing our other social media accounts.

Our first event as a formal collective was the video for South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM), which I spoke about in my previous post. To recap, our event, which was broadcast on 6th August, was a pre-recorded video titled ‘The Travelling Notebook; a conversation about connection with Koyal Writers’ in which we shared insight into the workings of a virtual writing group. In the first half of the video, we talk about how we met, how we maintain our connection, and how we collaborate as a writing group through The Travelling Notebook. The second half of the video then features readings from all of the Koyals of pieces that they have contributed to The Travelling Notebook. The video was warmly received and it is still available to view on the SAHM YouTube channel. 

Moving onto the Writing Magazine article, I get the magazine every month and love reading about the different groups showcased in their regular Writers’ Circles feature. With many of the writing groups talking about how they had to adapt their mode of operation due to the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, I thought that readers might be interested to learn about how Koyal Writers manage connection and collaboration as a virtual group. I contacted Writing Magazine and asked if they would like to feature us. Much to my delight, they wrote back with an enthusiastic ‘yes’, and the next thing we knew, Koyal Writers were under the WM spotlight. Our feature is in the October issue of the magazine, which is out now and available to buy here.

Writing Magazine (October 2021)

It was a real spine-tingling moment when the magazine dropped through the letter box and I opened it up to find our story in print. It makes me proud to see how far our little group has come since our paths happened to converge on the same writing course less than four years ago, and it makes me excited to see how much further we will travel in the next four. Whatever the future holds, I’m so grateful to be on this journey with these amazing women by my side.

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

#AmBloopering

Things are a little quiet on the writing front at the moment for me, now that my novel sitting in the virtual slush-piles of various agents patiently awaiting their attention. In the meantime, however, I have been engaging in a fair bit of writing-adjacent activity, so I thought I would share a little about that today.

In particular, I have been getting to grips with recording myself doing readings. Now, I have to admit that reading my work out loud to other people isn’t exactly my favourite part of the being-a-writer gig, because standing in front of a crowd and having all eyes on me is as far from my comfort zone as, say, Australia is from England. But, in the spirit of being courageous in the pursuit of my dreams (which I wrote about in a previous post here) I’m doing my best to embrace it.

So far, my experience of ‘embracing readings’ has gone a little like this: I say a quick just-go-for-it ‘yes’ when asked by someone to do a reading for their event, then immediately push it out of my mind because my anxiety starts rising and the words what-the-hell-was-I-thinking? start playing repeatedly in my head. Then, when the event organiser follows up with me a short while later to ask how I’m getting on with my preparations, I panic all over again, think about ways to get out of the reading, and then tell myself well-you-have-to-do-it-now-because-you-already-said-yes.

At that point, I accept that there is no going back, submit to the process and get my act together. I decide on which piece/extract I’m reading, start practicing, suppress further bouts of panic as they arise, and push push push myself towards the reading and through it and out of the other side. And when it’s all over, I think about how the readings aren’t ever as terrible as I think they’re going to be and admit to myself that I’m-on-a-bit-of-a-high-now-actually and start thinking gosh-it-would-be-fun-to-do-that-again….

With events taking place online for the last 16 months or so due to the pandemic, it has been a very long time since I last had to do an in-person public reading (phew!) but I have done a few for live online events and more recently I have begun working on readings for pre-recorded events. I thought that these would be easier because there wouldn’t be the usual the-audience’s-eyes-are-on-me anxiety, but they’re proving to be trickier. I guess because when you’re live, you’re committed from the moment you start reading and you have to keep going no matter how many mistakes you’re making along the way, whereas when you’re doing something pre-recorded there is an increased expectation that it has to be perfect.

Where that expectation came from, I don’t know, but I didn’t question it and I ended up spending a ridiculous amount of time recording and re-recording and re-re-recording my reading for my first event. Many, many bloopers later, I remembered that perfection is the enemy of creativity and growth, so I told the perfection-expectation to ‘<insert expletive> off’, did the best job I could with my reading, and sent the recording to the event organiser before I could get caught in the picking-faults-in-my-performance loop again. And then I repeated the process for the next reading.

So, that’s a little bit about the learning curve that I have been travelling lately. Would you like to see how the readings actually turned out?  Great! I thought you would never ask… 😉

The first reading is of my story The lady would have preferred Milk Tray, but black magic it is, which I recorded for ‘An Evening of Women’s Flash Fiction Readings’, part of South Asian Heritage Month. The video is available on YouTube and features twelve writers with wonderful tales to tell, so do put your feet up and take your time to check out all of the readings.

The second reading is for ‘The Travelling Notebook: a conversation about connection with Koyal Writers’, also a South Asian Heritage Month event. Koyal Writers is my lovely virtual writing group and this is the first event we are putting together as a group, so we are very excited about it. The recording will go live on YouTube at 12:30pm on Friday 6th August 2021, and I will post a link as soon as it is made available by the organisers.

I would happily share one of my many bloopers with you in the meantime, of course, but I haven’t quite learned how to embed video into these posts just yet. Oh well. One new skill at a time, hey? #AmBloopering #AmLearning #AmShrinkingThatDiscomfortZone

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

Love Local Learning

I’ve been playing around with the website today. (Apologies to any close observers made dizzy from seeing all the content and pages jumping about!) Although I had dabbled in blogging many years ago, it was all done in a very basic format back then and this is my first time setting up a full website, so I have had to learn the process anew and I’m still figuring out a lot of things as I go along.

I had been thinking about setting up the website for a long time but that thought wasn’t put into action until I came across a course from my local adult education service earlier this year. I know that plenty of guidance on setting up websites is freely available online but sometimes I just like learning the old-fashioned way, with tutors and fellow students and classroom camaraderie, so as soon as I saw the advert for the ‘Build Your Own Website’ course, I signed up.

Classes took place once a week for five weeks and the teaching was delivered online due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. However, although we couldn’t be together, it was still nice to learn alongside other local people in the virtual classroom environment because there is at least a chance that we might cross paths again someday in the real world when the removal of restrictions allows life to go back to ‘normal’.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a bit of a nerd (I sometimes wonder if I should change my name to Nerdira) and I could probably spend my life as a perennial student, so I’m already itching to get back onto another course. What that will be, I’m not completely sure, but I quite fancy doing something arty in order to expand my creative range as I would like to start adding illustrations to some of my writing.  

Whatever course I end up choosing, I hope that this time it can happen in a real rather than virtual classroom. But even if it ends up being another online course, it won’t really matter. I suspect that Nerdira will be very happy either way.

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

Poem: Three Little Birds

They came to Bob Marley
And Corinne Bailey Rae.
Now they have come to me.
Three little birds, named
Belief, Love, and Joy,
With lyrics of affirmation.

Belief sings, ‘Have faith in yourself
And trust in God’s plan.’
Love sings, ‘Be kind to yourself.
You deserve compassion and care.’ 
Joy sings, ‘Let His light into your life,
And let yours shine out to the world.’

Three little birds bringing
My very own inspiration song.
I listen to them now, 
Singing outside my window,
And smile. So too does
My inner child. 

On and on they sing,
The three little birds, 
Telling one little girl
That she matters
And is worth a little song
Every bit as sweet as she.

Oh, if that one little girl
Could have heard 
This one little song 
From these three little birds
When she was still small,
How different would her world now be?

The story behind the poem

I wrote this poem in January 2018 while listening to birds singing outside my window after Fajr, the Muslim dawn prayer. Their chirping brought to mind songs by the two singers referred to in the opening lines of the poem, and I found myself wondering what the birds might say if they were to sing for me. I jotted my initial thoughts down in my Morning Pages and later shaped it into this poem.